By Dave Yochum. When you tell Jerel Law there’s a Pastor Judge a few blocks away at First Baptist Church, the Rev. Law said, “we just need someone named Grace, don’t we.” He didn’t miss a beat, that’s for sure.
Law is the chief organizer and leader at Love Lake Norman, a new non-denominational church in the Oak Street Mill.
Law, who likes to be called Jerel, reflects a depth of knowledge around Christian theology that comes from a traditional Methodist upraising, followed by youth pastoring at Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, he was also active in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He went on to get a Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical, non-denominational seminary.
The first service at Love Lake Norman is April 2, in the Kadi Fit fitness studio, complete with hardwood floors, a couch and a bunch of those heavy punching bags that hang from the ceiling.
Law thinks he’ll leave them up. “What other church is going to have that,” he says. “I love this space. It is central to the community we are trying to reach.”
Law, at 45, is taking on an interesting task: Launching a church when attendance is down in some denominations. But he has a few things going for him. Cornelius is growing fast; a church in a high-growth area stands a better chance of growing. There’s also a young demographic here—an abundance of young families looking to sink roots—which is more promising for church planters than populations heavily weighted to seniors. At the same time, some mainstream churches have seen their congregations rattled by passionate disagreement around social issues.
Law comes at this church with a clean slate. Law will be innovative, part of the formula for growth in this day and age. The meeting space downtown in the old textile mill is more hip, perhaps, than a suburban church and Law has considerable experience in church outreach and growth.
“I would love for us to be a church that is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, different socio-economic backgrounds. … I want us to figure out ways to be a fuller expression of the kingdom of God,” Law says.
One of the themes of the new church is coming together as a group and going out individually and collectively. “We want to be a place where people of every background around here—rich, poor, black, white—can gather to be a community and learn more about following God together. But we also want to go out. … We don’t want to be content with just being in a gathering once a week, so that means we will look around our community and we will figure out how do we serve people the best.”
Law says he wants Love Lake Norman to be a place where people can belong, even before they believe. “I think a lot of people do have a questions about who God is and what He has to say, if anything, about their lives. … So we’re creating a place where you can come with your questions, with your doubts…where we can all take steps to know who God is.”
Law has no idea how many people will show up for the first service April 2.
“We don’t know what we’re going to have to be honest. We hope we’ll have a great crowd. But I don’t know if there will be 20 or 120 people. We will be prepared for a larger group and we’ll be OK with a smaller group,” Law says.
The Law children will be on hand, of course. Bailey, 17, plays the piano; Christopher, 15, plays bass and keyboard; and Luke, 12, will be “head greeter, he’s the most outgoing, he never met a stranger.”
Law and his late wife Susan were married in 1995 after meeting at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Their life was perfectly normal for a long time. From 1997 to 2003 Jerel worked at Mecklenburg Community Church, the last two years as discipleship pastor. He helped organize and lead small groups, a technique for growing a church.
“God began to impress on me, give me a passion, for the church to be relevant to people’s lives and not what you did on Sundays,” he said.
In 2003, the Laws planted Connection Church at Lake Norman YMCA. It was a success and growing.
Then Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 37. “We were a young couple with three small kids,” Law says.
“And so our world immediately became focused on getting her better, chemo and surgery and radiation, we went through multiple seasons of that. We would get to the end and think she was OK and then two, three months later she would have a recurrence,” Law says.
In 2009, Connection “was just at a place. … We were focused on her. …And the church was going through the financial crisis of 2008-2009. People were moving for jobs.”
Susan died on New Year’s Day 2011. The hospital did ink prints of her hand for each of her children.
Law closed the church. “At the time I felt it was crashing and burning. …Life was doing that and church was just a piece of that.”
“Things kind of fell apart for us for a while and life was just about how to get my kids to school and fed, a 10-year-old, and 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. We had a year or a year and a half of just a fog.”
He started Lake Norman Community Church before Susan passed away, meeting in a home in the MacAulay neighborhood as kind of an experiment in church planting. It grew and moved to a school before merging with Radiant Life Fellowship in Huntersville.
“Every step of that was incredibly painful and hard. This will sound like a Sunday school answer, but we felt like there was this God’s umbrella of grace…taking care of us and helping us take steps,” Law says.
He and the children are still attached to Radiant, where Law most recently was discipleship and outreach pastor. “They have supported and encouraged this new thing. I didn’t honestly think I would do anything like this again,” Law says.
The O in Love Lake Norman’s logo is a handprint—Susan’s.
“The handprint for me, it’s one of those ways where I feel like God’s going to show us that her death wasn’t in vain, and that amazing things can happen out of deep tragedy. My hope and prayer is that it will be part of her legacy.”
Law talks about Bailey, Christopher, Luke and himself as a unit, one in hope and a more modern approach to doctrine.
“Everybody has their issues and everybody goes through their own ways of grieving but they are doing really well. To be honest, I don’t think we’d be starting something new like this if they weren’t in a pretty healthy place. They’re excited about Love Lake Norman.”